Vocational training and industry: Views from the field

Discover our publication on vocational training in France – by Thibaut Bidet-Mayer and Louisa Toubal

Vocational training is crucial to ensuring an economy’s competitiveness. Numerous reports and studies have highlighted the flaws of the French training system, and even more so in the context of the reform started in 2013 and adopted on 5 March 2014.

To complement these publications and make an original and constructive contribution to the debate, La Fabrique de l’industrie decided to seek the opinion of people on the field. An open consultation was launched on La Fabrique’s website between September and December 2013. The result was around fifty contributions from all types of stakeholder: young people, employees, industrials, training operators, experts, etc. Their accounts were then completed by numerous interviews.

These contributions highlighted some original measures that have been devised to make up for the system’s weak points. Employing this method, we take a fresh look at the training system. Beyond clearly identified obstacles, we note that most stakeholders are particularly keen to work on bringing together “worlds” that are opposed or simply unaware of each other.

Vocational training: source of competitive advantage

Vocational training is crucial to ensuring the competitiveness of industrial companies. The globalization of trade, the spread of new technologies and consideration of environmental issues are resulting in an increasingly rapid obsolescence of skills and call for adapting the way work is organized. This requires greater versatility in the entire workforce: industrial competitiveness today relies on all employees, whatever their level of qualification.

In the contemporary world, the education system needs to provide young people with a solid initial education that equips them to adapt throughout their career. Continuous training also plays a vital role in enabling employees in work to maintain and develop their skills.

The current training system does not always satisfy these requirements. According to the Banque de France (2011), the lack of qualified staff is the biggest obstacle to business development. The number of young people who drop out of school remains high year after year and feeds into mass unemployment, while companies struggle to find candidates for numerous short-staffed trades. In addition, access to continuous training is still largely unequal: according to Céreq, from 2008-2010, only 36% of manual workers benefi ted from continuous training, compared to 60% of managers and intermediate professionals.
The example of Germany, developed by Jean-Daniel Weisz in this note, shows how our neighbours have connected competiveness with training, such as on the factory of the future programme, Industry 4.0.

Bringing schools closer to the business world

The recruitment difficulties facing industrial companies are mainly due to the sector’s lack of appeal to young people, their parents, teachers and career guidance personnel. The direct result is a worrying move away from industrial courses: according to national education figures, the number of pupils in vocational secondary schools who were enrolled in a specialized course leading to a career in industry dropped by 5.2% from 2005 to 2012.

Industrial trades are seen as highly prescribed, leaving little room for initiative. Traditional titles, such as “boilermaker”, “lathe operator”, etc., conjure up an old-fashioned image of industry. As a result, most young people discount courses leading to a job in industry and instead opt for general, theoretical courses. This trend is exacerbated by the fact that vocational courses are usually highly compartmentalized and leave little scope for a possible career shift.

These observations call for a move to bring the worlds of school and business closer together. A number of initiatives have been set up by different stakeholders in the training and economic spheres to enable young people to make more informed choices. Another priority is to open up professional opportunities.

Working on developing apprenticeships

Apprenticeship is another way to bring schools and business closer together. It is regularly put forward as a government priority: as far back as 1993, Edouard Balladur’s government set itself the objective of doubling the numbers of apprentices in five years. The threshold of 500,000, which was the aim at the time, has still not been reached. Signatures of apprenticeship contracts actually decreased by 8.1% in 2013. Numerous obstacles, both financial and non-financial, undermine the development of this measure.

Although they overwhelmingly support this type of training, many industrials consider that hiring an apprentice represents an investment for their company. In addition, apprenticeships still have low social prestige in France, unlike in Switzerland and Germany, for example. For young people and their families, they are associated with low qualification levels, which was the case for a long time, and few career development opportunities, even though it is now possible to pursue studies in parallel up to university level.

Apprenticeships lead to significant professional integration. In February 2012, 68.8% of apprentices were in work seven months after finishing their studies, compared to 47.8% of students from vocational secondary schools. Of those apprentices in work, 58.6% were on a permanent contract, compared to 36.9% of secondary school leavers (statistics from the ministry of education).

As an effective way to integrate the workplace, apprenticeships also constitute a means to combat early school leaving. Most apprentice training centres develop teaching methods that are not purely academic. They attempt to make a better connection between theoretical and practical teaching in order to give more meaning to the course. A particular effort is made to build the confidence of students who often performed poorly at school. Vocational secondary schools and apprenticeship schools are often viewed as in competition because they are both accessible at the end of middle school, but they are in fact complementary since they have different teaching objectives.

Investing in life-long training

Accompanying industrial changes, and adapting to the skills they require, cannot only rely on initial education. It takes time to set up initial training schemes adapted to the new trades, and time to train the first beneficiaries. However, companies cannot wait that long for the skills they need. Continuous training offers more flexibility.

Nevertheless, in France, great emphasis is put on initial education and diplomas, to the detriment of continuous training. The experience of Norway is interesting in this area; the country reformed its training system during the 1990s, considering initial education as only the first stage in a life-long training process. This comprehensive approach means that employees can adapt to changes in the production system. The under-development of the French continuous training system is most obvious for the least qualified.
Initiatives are being developed with difficulty. One example is career gateways, by which employees in struggling sectors can join more dynamic industries, e.g. between the automobile sector and the aeronautics industry. Training out-of-work people can also represent a worthwhile investment for industrial companies that have trouble finding staff. Some initiatives, such as employers’ groups for integration and qualification (GEIQ) are a way of overcoming the reticence of some companies vis-à-vis this section of the population.

The new law on vocational training, voted on 5 March 2014, was presented by the government as a new “impetus” for the system. It establishes the creation of a personal training account and a reform of financing terms, with the abolition of the tax liability. It also reaffirms the role of the regions in governing the training system and coordinating stakeholders. Regions henceforth play a crucial role in steering the system, and must now closely connect policies on economic development with training, in line with the requirements of businesses on their territory.

A few pointers

The aim of this document is to reproduce the opinions of stakeholders from the fi eld in an organized manner. The authors do not claim the legitimacy of numerous experts who recommend changes to the system. Some interesting pointers do, however, emerge from the accounts collected.

On the industry’s lack of appeal:

  • While the traditional opposition between industry and services is largely obsolete, trades connected to production are little known by the public and in particular opinion leaders (guidance councillors, teachers, etc.). Initiatives exist to “open up” factories and show what trades are really like, but they receive little publicity. Their impact could be strengthened by creating a network of stakeholders and by pooling initiatives. It is crucial to bring the school and business spheres closer together, such as by organizing and generalizing teacher placements in companies.
  • The image of jobs that leave little room for initiative and progression is exaggerated. However, companies could do more to facilitate progressive career paths and encourage life-long training. Improving human resource management is a key to boosting the appeal of industrial trades. Making tasks more complex and focusing on quality of work also play a role.

On improving the image of industries

  • The action points mentioned above should contribute to improving the image of vocational industries, as in northern European countries, so that they are no longer the second choice for students in difficulty. This improved image of vocational training also involves setting up gateways with the general education system, so that vocational courses are not seen as a “dead-end” option.
  • Apprenticeship is a way for pupils who are uncomfortable with the schooling system to discover different ways of learning. Companies should be encouraged to take on apprentices (including by maintaining financial incentives, which seem appropriate), promote this option more widely to young people, and ensure career opportunities for those who have “gambled on a trade and industry”.

On life-long training

  • An improved range of continuous training courses and more recognition of experience would increase the appeal of training for a trade in production from the start.
  • Access to continuous training is still very unequal. Training opportunities are aimed at the most qualified employees. This reflects a certain mentality that sees industry as led only by engineers and managers. However, today, the organization of industrial work requires greater autonomy and more initiative at all qualification levels. This is not just a social justice issue: if French industrials want to remain competitive, they need to offer their employees quality training, throughout their careers.
  • On this issue, policies to reduce charges for low salaries only can prove counterproductive because they encourage the least qualified jobs. Rather than simply supporting labour costs, political action should aim at improving the “non-cost” side of competitiveness by building skills. Industrials should also be aware that training opportunities need to be available to all employees.
  • Training is all too often considered as an expense for companies, whereas it is in fact an investment that increases a company’s capacity to face the future. Like R&D, accounting regulations should make it possible to consider staff training as an investment in “human capital”, as one of the company’s intangible assets. Only the annual amortization of this intangible asset would be counted as an operating expense. When companies neglect to maintain their skills capital, it would thus show in their accounting result.

On stakeholder coordination and responsibility

  • Companies have for a long time been unaccountable in terms of personal training, i.e. payment of a tax liability for continuous training, delegation of initial education to the national education system with no particular coordination, etc. The latest reforms point to greater involvement by companies in the training system, but these efforts must be pursued.
  • The regions have a key role to play. Their central place in the training system was reaffirmed by the reform of 5 March 2014. They should improve the coordination of their economic development and training action, in connection with the education and business spheres. By bringing together stakeholders on their territory, they can adapt training courses to companies’ needs and students’ aspirations. This is an urgent issue, because without the skills required to fuel it, the development of industrial companies will be jeopardized.


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